All they wanted was some mac and cheese. It was late 2010, and Sid Viswanathan, Bowei Gai, and Sudeep Yegnashankaran were outside LinkedIn's headquarters, peering into the cafeteria. The three CardMunch cofounders had just been escorted outside after a meeting at the company, but the meals inside were too much to resist. "There were these huge boxes of food," recalls Viswanathan.
"And we had backpacks," Gai says.
The team snuck back in, started filling their bags with food—and then bumped into one of the senior directors of engineering at LinkedIn, with whom they had just met. And who had just walked them out of the office building. "I have never been more embarrassed in my whole life," Viswanathan says today, laughing.
Of course, the founders of CardMunch, the smartphone app which digitizes business card data from just a quick camera snapshot, have come a long way since stealing mac and cheese to survive the lean-startup lifestyle. After LinkedIn acquired the company for $2.4 million last year, the number of cards scanned daily ballooned tenfold. In November, CardMunch relaunched its service, taking advantage of the data from LinkedIn's 135 million users, who have helped drive scans of more than 2 million business cards. And that's not to mention the other benefits of joining LinkedIn, such as improved company perks.
"There's a lot more food," beams Yegnashankaran. "You don't know how much we love the sushi."
But back in 2009, the CardMunch team would've just been happy to be Ramen profitable. Instead, the startup had just held a "company lunch" at Costco to save cash by running around to all the free sample trays. ("It was a 15-course meal," Viswanathan recalls.) The idea for CardMunch had spawned from attending a TechCrunch event, where the cofounders had collected a huge stack of business cards. Keeping track of the cards proved to be a nuisance, and after a brainstorm session with Manu Kumar from K9 Ventures, CardMunch was born. The team explored myriad ways of digitizing business cards, from automated scans to manual entry. (At one point, Gai and Viswanathan were typing up the data from submitted business cards themselves.) Ultimately, they chose a crowdsourced solution, and utilized Amazon's Mechanical Turk service.
But CardMunch's current success perhaps came most from realizing one simple truth: "We had to work with LinkedIn," Viswanathan says. "We knew LinkedIn would be part of our success whether we worked with them or not." For a startup focused on digitizing the business cards of professionals, there was no avoiding LinkedIn, the world's largest network of professionals. It's a dilemma many startups face: realizing there's only so far a startup can go without Facebook's social graph, or Google's search data, or LinkedIn's network, or Twitter's firehose. Even established brands such as Spotify and Netflix have gleefully signed on to Facebook's open graph.
To this end, the team started "dabbling with LinkedIn's APIs," Yegnashankaran recalls. "But we were just running into errors." Says Viswanathan, "We wanted a deeper level of access to all their APIs—we knew there were things they could offer us, so we tried to get as much access to LinkedIn because that's what our users wanted." So the three cofounders started attending LinkedIn developer meetups—not to network necessarily, but to track down answers to the problems they had integrating with LinkedIn's APIs. "We knew their engineers would be there, so we were going to find them," Viswanathan says.
Ironically, during this hustle to remain an independent startup is when CardMunch first caught LinkedIn's eye. "Several of us were using this app, and we liked it," Deep Nishar, LinkedIn's SVP of product, says. "So we went and found the team. Now, the latest version of CardMunch seamlessly integrates LinkedIn profile data and invitation functionality."
Today, when a business card is scanned via CardMunch's app, it is able to look up LinkedIn profiles based on the email address and other captured data. For the CardMunch team, that deep-level integration is exactly what they wanted. "There's no other company today that can [do that]," Viswanathan says. "It opens up a whole different host of possibilities."
And for LinkedIn, it means CardMunch has helped them end "this decades-old technology" of paper business cards, as Nishar says, and take the first step toward making "the Rolodex obsolete."